TALLAHASSEE — At least 200,000 Florida voters have gone to the polls to take advantage of the state's two-week early voting period in this year's contentious primary election.
Local elections officials predict that early voters will make up 30 percent of all voters in the primary. Overall early voting turnout is expected to reach 517,000, which is based on projections that 20 percent of Florida's 8.6 million registered Democrats and Republicans will vote.
Thousands of additional early votes are also expected to arrive by absentee ballot. Early voting ends this weekend.
The number of voters who get a head start on the primary this year is slightly higher than in 2006, the last midterm election that also featured an open governor's race, said Brenda Snipes, Broward County supervisor of elections. The reason for the increase in early voting, she said: convenience and confidence.
"Candidates and issues drive voters to the polls, but convenience drives voters to vote early," she said.
That's what brought Carol Ann Jackson of Brooksville and her husband to the Hernando County Government Center midday Wednesday. "We always vote early," she said. "We avoid the crowds."
At Broward's Southwest Regional Library precinct, where nearly 1,600 early voters have cast ballots, registered Democrat Roseanne Herring said she votes early because she doesn't want to take the chance of being unable to vote on Election Day.
Early voting is also the best way to avoid registration problems or showing up at the wrong precinct, said Ion Sancho, Leon County's supervisor of elections. Unlike Election Day when voters must cast their ballot at their home precinct, during early voting state law allows voters to go to any of their county's early voting sites, he said.
"If you run into a problem and you early vote, you've got days to fix it," Sancho said. "If you run into a problem on Election Day, you have a provisional vote and have to fix it in two days."
Shirley Harris of Jacksonville recalls watching as African-American voters were turned away from the polls in the 2000 election when their names had been removed from the voter rolls.
"I've been coming in ever since they started opening the polls for early voting," she said, after voting at a Duval County's elections office on Monday. "I want to make sure my vote counts."
Florida's botched 2000 election, which spawned the infamous presidential recounts and prompted major election reforms, was also the catalyst for the 2002 law that opened the door to early voting and lifted requirements that voters give a reason for requesting an absentee ballot.
Since then, other states have followed Florida's lead, and the percent of voters in the country who take advantage of early voting laws has increased about 50 percent each election year, said Paul Gronke, a political science professor at Reed College in Oregon and an expert on early voting.
"The reforms were intended to address perceived problems, avoid Election Day pressure and the last-minute crisis atmosphere," he said.
Georgia followed and adopted similar laws in 2004 and Ohio did the same in 2006.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, early voting hasn't led to higher voter turnout, but it has "taken a lot of the burden off Election Day," said Jerry Hollard, Duval County supervisor of elections.
"If you wait until the last 30 minutes of the day to vote and you're in the wrong precinct you may not have enough time."
Unlike the 2008 presidential race, when 50 to 60 percent of the votes cast for the general election were done by early voting, this year voters have not had to wait in long lines to cast a ballot.
Pasco Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley expects voter turnout to be higher than the 20 percent turnout during the 2006 primary — but not by much.
He expects that many voters haven't made up their minds and are hesitating about casting their ballots as a result.
"You may have Election Day be a deciding factor in a lot of these races," he said.
Contributors to this report were: Amy Sherman and Sergio Bustos of the Miami Herald, Steve Bousquet, Andy Boyle, Barbara Behrendt, Justin George, Jodie Tillman and Erin Sullivan of the St. Petersburg Times.